Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Death to email?

David Gelernter, a Yale CS professor, has written this screed against email which, among other things, argues that nothing should ever be deleted and that we need societal rules (rules of custom, not software) that do things like let people acknowledge email in haste, but respond in leisure. He also talks about things like reminders, purposeful neglect, etc.

In some areas I am in complete agreement. It is a bad idea to silo your email information from everything else in your harddrive. Everything should exist together. On my Mac, I deal with this by copying and pasting plaintext from an email into a text file and naming it appropriately. On my PC I screw around with the appalling Notepad. Hate it! My kingdom for a PC equivalent of BBEdit.

I also agree that keeping things in sequential order is a good idea. It's hard to remember keywords, but it's easy to recall seeing something a week or so ago. Timestamps are an integral part of my filing system.

I do not agree that you should never delete anything. Given the huge amounts of data moving through our lives, our attention is very scarce and clearing some of the crap is the least you can do to try and make sense of anything. Just because we can store everything does not mean we should store everything. Lotus Notes, which I'm using again now btw, has the single worst storage system ever: delete something and it stays in your face. Then clear trash and it is destroyed FOREVER. This is one of the most poorly implemented software features every, and it remains intact through 6 versions. No other delete feature on the planet works in as asinine a way. *Sigh*.

Gelernter goes to the other extreme and says you should never delete anything. Also not a good idea. Being able to put things in a big trashcan to peruse later helps you recover from mistakes and keep your desk clear.

Anyway, Gelernter has some product he claims will make everything better -- you can check out the screenshots here. While it is certainly true that the picture with the young lady (and fellow) in bathing costumes looks a darn sight better than text, it's not clear that a more sensibly arranged detail display (I pity the person whose program manager actually looks like the one Gelernter has on the left) won't let you machete your way through more data more quickly.

Gelernter is also a shameless self publicist and knows how to play to reporters. It's worth skimming this interview just to see the man in action.

My old boss Mark Hurst has written all about email and bit literacy. Worth rereading.


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